Cities After The Age Of Oil

Common Current has released a study (pdf) that ranks the 50 largest U.S. cities by their post-oil preparedness. Without further adieu, the top ten:

1. San Francisco
2. New York
3. Washington, DC
4. Seattle
5. Oakland
6. Chicago
7. Portland, OR
8. Philadelphia
9. Baltimore
10. Boston

The rankings were based on existing levels of sprawl, transit use, walking, biking, carpooling, telecommuting, and use of oil to heat buildings and generate electricity. Seattle ranks a mediocre 29th in sprawl, but makes up for it in other categories.

Warning: Beware The List! But although the validity of the ranking method may be debatable, the publication of the list will help raise awareness of a post-oil future. And we best be getting deeply aware.

Just as some folks recently aimed to do at Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil, a conference on “the need to re-imagine and rethink how cities are designed and organized in a future without the plentiful and abundant oil upon which prosperous urban economies have been built.”

The organizers note the 50th Anniversary of the 1958 “Conference on Urban Design Criticism,” — an event that had a major influence on urban design throughout the remainder of the 20th Century — and hope to help give birth to an equally influential evolution of urban design for the 21st Century.

But I’m not sold on the idea that we have to totally re-invent urban design, and would suggest more of a refinement, coupled with a heightened sense of urgency. The fundamentals of good urban design still hold, and in many cases can help reduce our vulnerability to diminishing supplies of oil.

An attendee of that 1958 conference, Lewis Mumford, had an uncanny knack for early diagnoses of urban ills that still afflict us today, and stand to become even more acute in a post-oil world. To take a single example, here are a few quotes from a Mumford essay called “The Highway and the City,” published in that same year of 1958:

“We must replan the inner city for pedestrian circulation, and we must rebuild and extend our public forms of mass transportation.”

“Every urban transportation plan should, accordingly, put the pedestrian at the center of all its proposals… But to bring the pedestrian back into the picture, one must treat him with the respect and honor we now accord only to the automobile.”

“We must also scrap the monotonous uniformities of American zoning practice, which turns vast areas, too spread out for pedestrian movement, into single-district zones, for commerce, industry, or residential purposes.”

“Most of our suburban and and exurban communities must replan large areas at perhaps double their present densities in order to have the social, educational, recreational, and industrial facilities they need closer at hand.”

“What we need is a compact vehicle, powered by electricity, delivered by a powerful storage cell, yet to be invented.”

“If we could overcome the irrational drives that are now at work, promoting shortsighted decisions, the rational case for rebuilding the mass transportation system in our cities would be overwhelming.”

5 Responses to “Cities After The Age Of Oil”

  1. joshuadf

    I can’t help notice the large number of old cities on the list, mostly East Coast built out before the automobile. Also, I guess it is actual cities proper and not MSAs since it has both San Francisco and Oakland on the list. If so we will have big pains because of all our suburbs.

  2. Dan Staley

    OF course, one can count lists while saying goodbye, but that would be much ado about nothing.


    Nonetheless, was in Atlanta this past week and the walkability was sh*t, making the city much less attractive. One notes the lack of dependence upon the automobile in any ranking of livable cities (post-oil positivity presumably would mean more people will migrate there after the cr*ppy areas depopulate).

  3. flotown

    This is a link to an article on-topic in the Oil Drum blog – great resource for energy-related links. Part 3 of a series of article examined to what degree suburbia can be, uh, “repurposed”

  4. Dan Staley

    Note also the article in our latest Planning** magazine about post-carbon cities.

    ** This is not an endorsement for the questionable use of our dues.

  5. Dan Staley

    BTW, I second reading the Oil Drum link. I plan on semiretiring in a few years and doing a part-time consultancy to teach suburbanites how to grow much food in little spaces in their yard. This won’t be self-sufficiency, but it will lessen vehicle trips.

    It is important to understand that suburbia won’t entirely depopulate – folks will figger it out. It will have some depopulation, however, and this means more open space and weeds and nearby nature and the challenges inherent in such things.

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